The great Jesse Owens embodied the Olympic ideal with his deeds at the stadium but long after his sporting career was over, he spoke in unforgettable fashion at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the forty years since then, few have come closer to encapsulating the Olympic spirit.
“Take a look at what’s happening out on the field today," he began.
“This is where youngsters break bread together they sing together they dance together and they play together. The only body in the world where you can find the youth of the world that can come together on a friendly field of competition.
"You’ve got the United Nations and they haven’t solved a damn thing, but you do solve something here. You solve a championship of the world and you’re not breaking heads and you’re breaking records, And this is why I say it is going to endure, because the youth of the world is going to be the leadership of the world in not too many years from today. And the things that he learns right here today he is going to take back to his own land, in his own mind they are going to live forever. Because these are great moments, whether you qualify for the finals or not, you were here and you broke bread with the rest of the world.”
Owens won four gold medals but also demonstrated what he meant in practical terms at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In the long jump, his most dangerous competitor was a German called Luz Long. Nazi propaganda had spoken disparagingly of "Black Auxiliaries" helping the American team. Yet it was clear that Owens and Long had forged a bond of friendship whilst competing together. To "break bread" under the gaze of the Nazi leadership was a courageous thing for both men to do.
When war came, Long was called up to the German military and became one of a depressingly long list of Olympians who lost their lives. The Games planned for 1940 and 1944 never took place .
In Rio de Janeiro at this year's Games, a special memorial tablet hewn from the rock in Ancient Olympia is planned for the Olympic Village to honour the memory of victims of conflict.
As the site of the Games of antiquity, Ancient Olympia is the symbolic headquarters of the International Truce Foundation founded in 2000.
It was designed to develop initiatives “that lead to the global support and observance of the Olympic truce and the steady shaping of a culture of peace.”
In recent Games, athletes have been invited to add their messages to a "truce wall" in the Olympic village.
The idea of an Olympic truce or ekecheiria has been suggested at many stages throughout the history of the Modern Olympic Movement .
The idea that the Olympics were somehow inviolate was shattered at Munich 1972 when terrorists broke into the Olympic Village. Eleven members of the Israeli team perished as a result of the attack.
Much earlier, in 1936, Hitler had been happy to bask in the Olympic spotlight but later events proved just how little he cared for the ideals of the Movement.
To a lesser extent, others since have also abused the Olympic ethos. Even at the Youth Olympic Games. There have been instances of athletes claiming injury rather than take part in competition against opponents from certain countries for political reasons.
The British middle distance runner Philip Noel Baker won Olympic medals at Stockholm 1912 and was also the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Inspired by his example, the athlete and humanist Don Anthony was also a prominent supporter of the idea.
Despite Owen’s strictures about the United Nations, he would have been delighted at the way they have supported the Olympic Movement’s quest for peace in recent years.
In October, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach travelled to New York City to call upon the General Assembly to seek their backing for an Olympic truce at the time of Rio 2016.
“This is the time when the international community comes together for peaceful competition," he told them. "In the Olympic Village we see solidarity and tolerance in their purest form. Athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees live together in harmony and without any kind of discrimination. This is the true spirit of ‘Olympic Unity in Diversity’ athletes from every corner living together under one roof."
Over 60 years before, Erik Von Frenkell, President of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki had offered similar sentiments.
“With unassuming voice we have requested a truce throughout the world for the duration of the Games, knowing full-well however, that the exhortations of our athletes and our youth are not enough to bring world peace," he said. "But we hope and we go on hoping that the Olympic Games will allow a respite from political tension.”
Von Frenkell’s call was made in vain in common with many others. The superpowers were at war in Korea and the competitors from the Soviet bloc even stayed in a separate Olympic Village decorated with a gigantic portrait of Stalin. Precious little opportunity there for contact, let alone to break bread with the world .
The world situation had not improved greatly by 1956. Then IOC President Avery Brundage had been amongst those to call for an extension of the Olympic truce but Spain, Switzerland and the Dutch stayed away from the Olympics in Melbourne because of the Soviet repression in Hungary. With some justification they felt that the festive atmosphere of the Olympics had been compromised. Iraq , the Lebanon and Egypt did not take part as a result of the Suez Crisis.
The IOC bulletin reported that it had received “a large number of protests”asking them to exclude the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and Israel from the Olympics because of their part in the respective hostilities.
Brundage responded in typical idealistic terms.
“We hope those who have withdrawn from the Games will reconsider," he said. "In an imperfect world if participation in sport is to be stopped every time politicians violate the law of humanity, there will be few international contests. Is it not better to try to expand the sportsmanship of the athletic field into other areas?”
The IOC President had succeeded in arranging the transit of the Hungarian team from Budapest to Prague and helped them obtain plane tickets for Melbourne. The Olympic Review described this as “the first modern Olympic truce, a great victory for the Olympic Movement.”
When the Hungarians reached Melbourne there would be no truce in the Olympic swimming pool .Their water polo encounter with the Soviets has become a byword for brutality.
There were other compensating factors in 1956. The American hammer thrower Hal Connolly and discus thrower Olga Fitokova from Czechoslovakia began a romance which led to marriage and at the Closing Ceremony, all teams entered the Olympic Stadium at the suggestion of a 17-year-old Chinese Australian boy called John Ian Wing who wanted to symbolise “the world as one nation".
At Rome 1960 , the Frenchman Raymond Boisset watched proceedings and concluded “the Olympic Truce was not a vain expression, it was there under our eyes. A breadth of warm friendship pervaded everywhere and succeeded in sweeping aside for a few days all fears doubts and resentment.” Like Jesse Owens, Boisset had competed at the 1936 Berlin Games.
When the Cauldron was lit at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo even the choice of the final runner was loaded with significance . Yoshinori Sakai had been born the very day the first atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. The dove of peace featured in the "look" of Mexico 1968, even though elsewhere there was fierce fighting in Vietnam War and Africa.
Conflict continued to cast a shadow over the Olympic Movement. When Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan at the end of 1979 , the American Government did all it could to bring about a boycott of the following year's Olympics in Moscow.
As the outgoing IOC President Lord Killanin took his leave, he asked the world “to unite in peace before a holocaust descends".
By the 1990s, war had broken out in the Balkans. The organisers of the 1992 Opening ceremony in Barcelona made a symbolic call for peace by arranging for a giant Olympic Flag to be unfurled across the field over the heads of the competing teams.
The IOC had also taken steps.
“The idea of Olympic truce as dedicated in ancient Greece to the understanding between peoples, urges member states to take the initiative to abide by the truce, and to pursue in conformity with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, the peaceful settlement of all international conflicts.”
In 1993, Juan Antonio Samaranch visited the UN who passed resolution 48/11, which called up “member states to take the initiative to abide by the Truce”.
War continued to rage in Bosnia as the 1994 Winter Olympics Games began in Lillehammer.
As the Ceremony began, actress Liv Ullman welcomed visitors.
“We sincerely hope that the Games will be held in the true Olympic spirit and that this festival will be a witness to international brotherhood, peace and solidarity," she said.
In his speech IOC President Samaranch said simply: "Please stop the fighting. Stop the killing. Drop your guns!"
At the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, the words of Dr Martin Luther King’s most famous speech were relayed to the crowd and John Lennon’s
By this time the idea of sport as an agent for peace was promoted by.IOC member Prince Albert of Monaco gave his backing to a Peace and Sport movement , founded by Joël Bouzou, an Olympic bronze medallist in modern pentathlon. “Sport has a unique capacity to unite people," said Prince Albert.
Another IOC member Prince Feisal Al Hussain of Jordan launched Generations for Peace.
At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Bach spoke with pride of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s participation in the Torch Relay. Later that evening at the Opening Ceremony, a message from the UN was relayed over the big screens.
In recent weeks, the sporting community has rallied in the wake of the attacks in Paris. At Wembley Stadium, the national teams of England and France stood side by side as the entire crowd sang the French national anthem together following the terrorist attacks in the French capital.
The organisers at 2016 will surely mark their Ceremonies with similar messages of international unity.
A little over a century ago an Olympic gold medal for poetry was won by an ode which included the words
“O Sport you are Peace!, you forge happy bonds between the peoples ”
The author was none other than Pierre de Coubertin.